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Six Years after State College Fire, Wrongful-Death Case Bound for Trial

on April 02, 2011 10:33 PM

A wrongful-death case filed after a fatal State College fire appears bound for trial late this year.

The civil case dates to 2005, when a 21-year-old Penn State student, Christopher Raspanti, died in a house fire at 500 E. Beaver Ave. He had been sleeping in his third-floor bedroom when the 80-year-old rental home caught fire in the early-morning hours April 24.

Investigators traced the blaze's cause to a ceiling area of Raspanti's room. They said it was probably rooted in an electrical fault or over-heating, according to documents filed in Centre County court.

But the house, owned by State College landlord Rodney Hendricks, was not permitted to have bedrooms on the third floor, according to regional code rules cited in court. Raspanti and his roommates were never told that the third floor should not have been used for bedrooms, and rooms on that level were numbered, court filings show.

Citing those and other concerns, Raspanti's father, William A. Raspanti, of Bucks County, has pursued the wrongful-death civil case against Hendricks since December 2005. Continental Real Estate Management, which reportedly managed the property when Raspanti and his roommates signed a lease, and Charles Tabolsky, of Hendricks/Tabolsky Investments, also are listed as defendants.

The parties have volleyed court filings back and forth for the past five years. But in a March 8 order, county President Judge David E. Grine scheduled a trial for nine days in December, starting on Dec. 7. Jury selection is scheduled for Dec. 6.

Attorneys representing parties in the case did not immediately respond to inquiries this week. But a filing made in May 2010 by Clifford Bidlingmaier, an attorney representing William Raspanti, outlines some key contentions from the plaintiff's side. Among them:

  • Hendricks knowingly allowed the house at 500 E. Beaver Ave. to be occupied by six people when the property was capped at five-person occupancy, according to the filing.
  • Continental terminated an agreement to manage Hendricks' properties when Hendricks demonstrated a "continued refusal to perform necessary maintenance," according to the filing.
  • The third floor at 500 E. Beaver Ave. had no bedroom window that would've been adequate for an escape in the event of a fire, and "more importantly, no second means of escape," the filing indicates. It says a state investigator "stated that the existence of a fire escape to the third floor of 500 E. Beaver Ave. could have possibly led to Christopher being saved and alive today."
  • A home next door to 500 E. Beaver Ave., also owned by Hendricks, was permitted to have bedrooms on the third floor, the filing reads. " ... Most importantly, it (the next-door home) had a fire-escape egress from the third floor," it goes on. "Thus, Hendricks was well aware of this fire-safety feature ... ."
  • A review of Hendricks' rental practices found "an extensive over-occupancy of other (of his) properties," the filing reads. "An analysis of some 45 properties of a nature similar to the one in this fatal fire, including leases, shows that at least 18 properties were over-occupied during the same period of time."

The filing also includes the assertion that the house at 500 E. Beaver Ave. had inadequate and faulty electrical work and "the obvious presence of dangerous materials on the third floor." It says the property owner should have applied to have the property zoned as a rooming house, which "would have triggered heightened requirements for fire safety, including hard-wired smoke alarms and a sprinkler system."

The case, asserting that Hendricks acted "with knowledge that harm would follow," includes a claim for punitive damages.

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